Precisely because divine revelation is for man’s benefit we dare not obscure its informational content nor mistake God’s disclosure as automatically saving. Supplying sinful mankind with a lucid divine assessment of its woeful predicament, God’s revelation informs us as well of God’s gracious provision and indispensable condition for reversing that condition.
Simply hearing God’s revealed good news, his dramatic offer of redemption, does not redeem us automatically. In William Temple’s words, “No greater gift can be offered to men; yet many refuse it” (Readings in John’s Gospel, p. 50). We are not redeemed by “good tidings” alone.
-Carl F.H. Henry
The current controversy over hell is nothing new. Henry wrote in the mid-‘70’s, “The concept of divine wrath is, to be sure, offensive to many moderns, as are other divine truths; some find even the reality of God repugnant. But to delete the concept of divine wrath violates both the teaching of Scripture and the moral nature of the self-revealing God.” Henry was not facing a cool, postmodern crowd of neo-Christians but the mainline denominations’ embrace of theologian Karl Barth’s universalism. In response to Barth, Henry wrote,
In his majestic vision of the totality of God’s triumph, and in deference to the irresistible power of grace, Barth ignores the conditional elements of the biblical revelation. He turns the sure triumph of divine grace into an implicit universalism of redemption that obscures the context of faith and obscures the indispensability of personal decision in this life for the inheritance of salvation. For Barth, unbelief in no way nullifies God’s decision. God’s liberating work is done, and therefore no one can undo that work. Since salvation is an accomplished fact, human beings need only to “know” that all is well.
Emil Brunner protests this view. If Barth is correct, he says, then we can no longer speak as does the Bible of lost mankind, and we remove all possibility of final judgment and damnation. In this notion that “all, believers and unbelievers, are saved from the wrath of God and participate in redemption through Jesus Christ,” writes Brunner, “Barth is in absolute opposition, not only to the whole ecclesiastical tradition, but—and this alone is the final objection to it—to the clear teaching of the New Testament” (The Christian Doctrine of God, pp. 348 f.). For Barth the “turning-point” from “being-lost” to “being-saved” does not exist, says Brunner, “since it is no longer possible to be lost” (p. 351). But the biblical gospel is rather “the summons to decision” (p. 353). In short, the New Testament invariably associates “no condemnation” with the requisite of personal faith.
Recently, Chris Seay, a friend of Rob Bell’s, preached on hell. He opened his sermon with a clip from N.T. Wright who stated that it would be nice to be a Universalist but he believed our decisions are more important than that.
Please let me save some of you from posting nasty comments that I will have to delete. I understand that Bell is not strictly a Universalist because he believes that some people will choose to reject God’s love. Bell, however, does argue that God will grant those who reject Him a second chance. I’m not sure who spends any time wallowing in hell and decides they prefer it to heaven but that’s beside the point. The only point I want to draw from Henry today is that this is all nothing new. Revelation (in Bell’s mind “God is love”) has been equated with salvation by many of the 20th centuries’ most influential theologians. Yet, as Henry points out so eloquently again and again, Scripture claims to be divine revelation for the benefit of man and how can it benefit man if it is unclear and how much clearer must the warnings of eternal judgment be? To muddy the clear witness of Scripture to conform to our own cultural prejudices does not just call into question the validity of the Bible but also the ability of God to successfully reveal Himself.
I end with Henry’s own wonderful prose,
The comprehension of revelation must therefore not be confused with the appropriation of salvation. While salvation forms the main theme of the special revelation of God, salvation is not the one and only theme of divine revelation. Knowledge of God’s revelation invites punishment for rejecting its light and opportunity as surely as it points the way to redemptive rescue on condition of repentance and obedience. The Psalmist writes: “My people did not listen to my voice; Israel would have none of me. So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts, to follow their own counsels” (Ps. 81:11, rsv). The weight of the biblical witness is that man stands condemned not simply for ignorance of the true and living God, but especially because of his revolt against the light of revelation. The writer of Hebrews warns: “If the word spoken through angels had such force that any transgression or disobedience met with due retribution, what escape can there be for us if we ignore a deliverance so great?” (Heb. 2:2–3, neb). In other words, what hope is there if we ignore the revelation given in Jesus Christ himself who crowns the earlier revelation of God? Salvation divinely disclosed can be forfeited precisely because unbelief can resist and neglect revelation that carries the offer of redemption. To emphasize the gravity of neglect, and the inevitability of judgment for such heightened culpability, the Epistle to the Hebrews rivets attention on the deliverance “announced through the lips of the Lord himself” (2:4, neb), confirmed by the apostles and authenticated by miraculous signs. Those to whom the glorious news of deliverance comes can by choice or default spurn the very salvation accomplished by Jesus Christ himself. If, on the other hand, revelation were salvific, then the very possibility of such rejection of God’s disclosure and of consequent punishment for human culpability would be precluded.
God’s revelation is given for human benefit. But even in the twentieth century multitudes of human beings can and do know and hold down the truth of God in unbelief and rebellion. The witness of the Bible is that our sinful race swaggers in revolt against the light of revelation, turns aside from God’s Word and is therefore doomed to divine judgment. For all that, God still proffers a gracious last-days message of rescue, offering man as the alternative to endless doom a place of fellowship in the kingdom of God. One of the most sobering doctrines of Scripture is that even as life on earth can carry expectations of a blessed destiny through the present possession of eternal life, so too it can contain anticipations of eternal judgment: the time comes when God gives the inordinately wicked up to a reprobate mind (Rom. 1:28). Equally sobering, and more gratifying, is the fact that the day of grace and opportunity for decision remains with us for yet another day. Both heartening and ominous is the message of John’s Gospel that the Light is shining (ongoingly) in the darkness, and not even the direst darkness has been able to extinguish it (John 1:5).